Wednesday, April 4, 2012

Early Review: "The Pirates! Band of Misfits" is another heartfelt, creative triumph from Aardman

Film Rating: A

At this point, the only bad thing one could say about Aardman Animations is that we just don’t see their work often enough.  One or two films every five years feels criminally slight when one considers what amazing creative feats this company can achieve, from the classic “Wallace and Gromit” series to “Chicken Run” and beyond. 

But if you’re going to have one imperfection, I’d say that’s one worth having, a fact their latest feature – “The Pirates! Band of Misfits” – makes abundantly clear.  The film is so impeccably crafted, well paced, cleverly written, heartwarming, and hilarious from start to finish that one can easily see why it took five long years to finish the project.  There is nary a moment I would alter, hardly a single plot point or joke I could quibble with; “The Pirates!” comes as close to ‘perfect,’ whatever that means, as most films ever get, a result of director Peter Lord and his team giving each piece of the film the love, time, and attention it deserved.  The result is a film bursting at the seams with heart and creativity, one that can and will be enjoyed by audiences of all ages.  Continue reading after the jump...

As the title suggests, “The Pirates!” follows a rag-tag crew of 19th-century buccaneers, fun-loving friends who sail the high seas in search of adventure and booty.  The only problem is that they’re rather incompetent; despite their enthusiasm, a lack of success in plundering has prevented their Captain from winning the illustrious ‘Pirate of the Year Award’ for over thirty years.  With the contest approaching once more, the Captain plans on changing all that, but some fearsome rivals and the wrath of pirate-hating Queen Victoria may stand in his way. 

Oh, and they also have an adventure with Charles Darwin.  You may think to yourself, “why would I want to see a movie where Pirates team up with a famed English naturalist?,” but half an hour into the movie, the question changes to “why did it take this long for someone to make a movie about inept Pirates meeting the great evolutionary theorist?” 

That’s what “The Pirates!” does so well – it tackles the worlds of piracy, science, and English royalty with boundless creativity, lovingly and intelligently satirizing genre tropes, character stereotypes, and the pomp-and-circumstance of scholarly and royal cultures.  The jokes are genuinely clever across the board; I even got a kick out of the occasional anachronisms, a comedic device often borne out of lethargy.  But I especially love the way Lord and company represent the Pirate life.  Unlike a lot of family films, they don’t completely sanitize it: there are still references to murder, drinking, and debauchery, and the film never pretends that the Pirates’ plundering is anything other than bad behavior.  It’s all light-hearted, of course, and the Pirates are easy to love because they’re in it for fun and friendship, not mayhem and destruction; positive messages and role-models are weaved into the fabric of the story, but all the while, there’s a dark edge to this world that makes the film unique and refreshing. 

But as with any other great Aardman title, it’s the characters that really make this film shine.  Animated or no, I haven’t had this much fun with a screen ensemble all year.  Every member of the crew is just endlessly lovable, all of them well defined and quirky in their own way, and most importantly, the chemistry they share is tremendous.  As I said before, this is a film with lots and lots of heart, and it stems from the relations among the crew; they come across as a real family, one that grows more endearing with each passing minute, and that adds a welcome emotional weight to even the silliest of set-pieces.  The film’s interpretations of Darwin and Queen Victoria are a hoot, gloriously twisted and unpredictable, and the story is littered with vivid, hilarious side-characters to flesh out the experience. 

I couldn’t possibly be more impressed with the voice cast Aardman assembled or the work the performers turn in; every part is played by a truly talented Thespian: Hugh Grant, Martin Freeman, David Tennant, Imelda Staunton, Brendan Gleeson (as my favorite character, the “Pirate with Gout”), and many, many more.  If the promise of such a splendid cast doesn’t get your heart racing, you don’t have a pulse (or are unfamiliar with British pop culture, I suppose), and thankfully, nobody phones in as much as a single line.  They all give real, heartfelt performances, and play off one another beautifully.  Grant in particular is just marvelous as the Pirate Captain, sinking into the character with the perfect mix of fun, ineptitude, pomp, and bravado.

Animator working on "The Pirates: Band of Misfits"
As expected, the visuals are a wonder to behold; if you’ve seen any of Aardman’s previous claymation work, like “Wallace and Gromit,” you know what to expect: stunningly molded, imaginatively designed figures acting on gorgeous, lavish sets.  Lord has upped the ante this time around, shooting in the wide 2.35:1 aspect ratio.  That’s a rarity in the world of stop motion, for it greatly increases the amount of space the animators need to fill, but the gamble pays off spectacularly.  There’s a scope to these visuals not found in many hand-animated flicks, and it’s absolutely invigorating to watch.  The use of 3D is generally quite good, as it immerses the viewer in the sets and character models, but the colors become a bit too dim for my tastes; they should vividly pop off the screen, but the 3D mutes them to a degree that would ultimately force me to recommend traditional 2D. 

Director Peter Lord on the set of "The Pirates!"
Either way, “The Pirates!” isn’t a film you’ll want to miss.  Family entertainment doesn’t get any better – if you have any love for your children, please choose this over dreck like “The Lorax” and “Journey 2” – but as with the best family films, “The Pirates!” isn’t limited by age range.  In a Q&A after the screening, director Peter Lord summed up how they approach their audience thusly: “We just make movies for people.”  Truer words have never been spoken, for this is the rare instance where I honestly can’t imagine a single viewer denying the film’s charms. 

If the end results are always going to be this polished and entertaining, then Aardman can take all the time in the world.  I’ll wait as long as it takes for another gem like this. 

“The Pirates! Band of Misfits” will be released in theatres nationwide on April 27th.

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